The digital revolution is not being televised; it is being projected in the movie theaters, and the figurehead of this movement is the controversial and enigmatic Lars von Trier. With the release of Dancer in the Dark, von Trier has taken center stage as cinema's most hated yet challenging directors of the new millennium. As founder of Dogma 95, the filmic manifesto equal parts mocking and serious, he created a mission statement to scale down cinema and bring an honesty, directness,and more personal style that was previously found in filmmaking giants such as Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu. This decree has spawned the use of handheld video over 35mm film, as well as bizarre filmic experiments such as julien donkey-boy, Mifune and The Celebration.
Strangely, von Trier is yet himself to make a Dogma approved film, but it seems to follow his odd humor and defiance of conventionality. For example, he adopted the "von" in his name during his film school days as a joke on the pretentious art world of cinema. It is this irony that many viewers find sadistic and alienating in his work, and their cinematic experience turns cold and angry. But even though von Trier makes you want to throw your popcorn or rip your ticket, I think there is something valuable underneath this so-called charlatan's grin and captured in the lens of his camera.
Dancer premiered in May and won the Palme D'or at Cannes; it unsurprisingly was met with considerable boos and has critics and viewers alike divided on its status as groundbreaking art or inane melodrama. The movie centers around Selma (Bjork), a Czech factory and single mother who is gradually going blind. She endures ordeal after ordeal in an attempt to pay for her son Gene's operation, who we are told will develop the same eye disease as Selma. In order to escape the agony and torment of her own worsening condition, she finds relief in musicals. She goes to the movies with her friend Kathy (Catherine Deneuve) and also takes part in a local production of The Sound of Music. And when situations become unbearable, she breaks into a musical number, which takes place in her mind, a form of mental dissociation. Tragically, her savings are stolen by a local sheriff, Bill (David Morse), who rents her a house on his property. Ashamed that he won't be able to support his prodigal wife, he forces Selma to kill him in exchange for the money. Upon recovering the money, Selma pays an eye clinic in advance for her son's operation, and then is arrested and put on trial, and the love for her son is truly tested. If you've seen Breaking the Waves, the plot is not new ground for von Trier, and is full of credibility issues and far from complex. For one example it's supposedly set in Washington state in 1964, but it is apparent that it was shot in Denmark, bearing little resemblance to the U.S., rather becoming an outsider's perception of America. But von Trier seems to be asking his viewers to take a leap of faith with the story, almost like reading a children's fairytale on the level of Red Riding Hood. Except the Brothers Grimm version not sweetened for children, where Red Riding Hood gets swallowed and eaten by the wolf. It is here at the allegorical level that von Trier is most capable, he takes us on a ride through the trial of woman, and the test her love is put through. One might even say that Selma is von Trier's Joan of Arc or Job, a character who is constantly humiliated and questioned in a unforgiving world for her unhesitating love. She is pure and childlike, resisting the constraints of the social order, even to the point of self-negation. Von Trier thus is not cold and mechanical to his protagonist (although he could be criticized for his idealization of femininity), but rather he seems to have the utmost compassion for her.
To place Dancer in a genre, one might have to create a new category. A melange of melodrama, pastiche, and musical, the film tries one's patience and pushes viewers to a breaking point, much like Selma. But if we hold on under this mounting tension, then the rewards are almost transcendental. Many people have complained about the shaky shooting of handheld video, the nervous pans and haphazard frames. Also the jump cutting and discontinuity in time also make for an unsettling feeling. But this adds to the experience, the fragility and excitement, as if the film might fall apart at any moment. It makes one edgy in one's seat, creating a sensation more nerve-wracking than most suspense or action thrillers. As to the criticism that sloppiness is not a valid stylistic choice, it might be interesting to note that von Trier operated the camera himself. We are seeing the story through his eyes, and it becomes a search for the object of the film or a way of looking: a subjective experience most mainstream films repress. For this film, he had no rehearsals; he just told his actors to say their lines when ready and do what was right for the character. He'd then shoot it (no surprise then that Bjork had a harrowing experience, and said she would never be able to make a film again). His camera mimics a casual observer thrown into the fray, panning, craning, trying to catch all the action and hear all the dialogue, which might account for some of the cinematographic rough spots.
Furthering this subjectivity, the bright musical sequences, although at times over the top, were refreshing and contrasted wonderfully to the drab and muted color palette of the factory and courtroom scenes. In contrast to Hollywood musicals of the '40's and '50's, von Trier uses the song and dance to further the exploration of his characters, a fragmentation or parallel universe, rather than an instrument of frivolity or light-heartedness. Bjork's performance and singing are stunning (if one is lenient toward her blunt acting style), and her voice carries one into her vulnerable and fragile sphere; all one needs to do is follow her into the depth of the notes that resonate, creating a fascinating world around her.
All in all (and there is a lot to talk about upon leaving your seat), this film reveals von Trier at the pinnacle of his cinematic powers, and simultaneously shows his weaknesses.
This may be the reason for the division over the importance of this work, because the problems of his cinema become more evident in proportion to the strength of his vision, his moral message and the risks he takes. It is a film at times with gaping holes, but also with incredible heights. Hate it or love it, but most importantly see it.
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